Set aside the sushi menu. The valley’s new wave of Japanese cuisine boasts rich curries, exotic tapas and deep-fried everything
Japanese food in Las Vegas has been about much more than sushi for some time now. It’s more than the curious local foodie crowd that has made this discovery, too — a handful of restaurants offering multidimensional versions of this refined cuisine have earned national media exposure, including the still-buzzed-about Raku, which opened in 2008, and the ever-packed ramen shop Monta, born a few doors down on Spring Mountain Road in 2010.
Those two restaurants, intimate places dedicated to the highest quality, and about a half-dozen other off-Strip Japanese joints have something in common — or rather, someone. Restaurant stylist Martin Koleff landed in Las Vegas in 2005 to develop what was then Okada at Steve Wynn’s eponymous luxury resort on the Strip. After that, Koleff began working with local sushi landmark Sen of Japan, which spun him toward importing talented chefs and developing and opening other Japanese eateries. Koleff deserves as much credit as can be given to one man for shining the spotlight on so many different delicious discoveries, types of food and ways of eating that locals may not have otherwise encountered.
His goal of exposing new elements of his native cuisine has become contagious. Not only do we have a plethora of playful izakayas (kind of the Japanese version of a tapas bar) and a wave of hip ramen shops, but there are curry houses, coffee houses, soba noodle houses, sake bars, multi-cuisine fusion experiments and much, much more. It seems as if a slightly modified, somewhat personalized, exciting new Japanese restaurant opens almost every week.
One of the most colorful examples is the highly innovative Yonaka (4983 W. Flamingo Road, 685-8358), which bills itself simply as a modern Japanese restaurant. Sparking the corner of Flamingo and Decatur in a space that was once home to a French bistro, Yonaka offers familiar fare in the form of sushi and sashimi and creative makimono rolls with cute names — the “Asian Pillow” is a spring roll of salmon, roasted beet, lettuce, shallots, sun-dried tomato, Thai chili and candied walnut, an interesting combo to be sure — but Yonaka’s true brilliance is expressed through a variety of tapas-style small plates, served hot and cold. Seemingly simple, mouth-brightening combinations such as yellowtail with asparagus and tomato-ginger purée or albacore, avocado and grapefruit in a kaffir lime vinaigrette will have you wondering if you’re still eating Japanese, and ordering more and more. Add in the long list of daily special plates and Yonaka is easily a different dining experience every time.
Small plates are the specialty of the izakaya, and we’ve got tons of them. In addition to the cult favorite Raku and the similarly beloved, late-night hot spot Ichiza, consider the southwest’s great Kyara (6555 S. Jones Blvd. #120, 434-8856). Serving lunch and dinner, Kyara heaps together several different styles, so you can experiment with tons of age (deep-fried) appetizers like squid tentacles, potatoes with butter and fried chicken, itame (stir-fried) delights such as tofu in a savory gravy or whole squid, and kushi skewers of vegetables, chicken thigh, pork belly or bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms. This menu is huge and these bites are small, so bring your crew and work your way through. Other favorite izakayas include Miko’s (500 E. Windmill Lane #165, 823-2779), a true neighborhood favorite in the same strip mall as Bachi Burger and Shoku Ramen-ya, and the Chinatown after-hours hangout Shuseki (5115 Spring Mountain Road #117, 222-2321), where throngs of cool kids swill cheap Asahi and get down on potato croquettes, rice or noodle bowls, sushi specials and the addictive fried chicken nuggets known as karaage.
If you need some true soul food and it’s still too warm to slurp a steaming bowl of ramen, head to one of Spring Mountain’s curry houses. Koleff’s Curry Zen (5020 Spring Mountain Road #1, 985-1192) and the more whimsical Kaba Curry (5115 Spring Mountain Road #234, 589-0370) serve a similar menu, great dishes of white rice and dark brown, ultra-flavorful curry sauce with the added ingredients of your choosing (fried shrimp or pork or chicken cutlets, sausage, cheese, corn, all kinds of stuff). Everyone’s Japanese curry house is personal and different, so try them both and declare your own winner.
Then there are Japanese specialty restaurants that don’t have any competition. Cafe de Japon (5300 Spring Mountain Road #101, 839-8668) feels like an American ’50s diner with a Japanese twist, offering some of the best coffee in town and comfort food favorites like hamburger steaks and beef and vegetable stew over rice. Trattoria Nakamura-ya (5040 W. Spring Mountain Road #5, 251-0022) is Tokyo-style Japanese-Italian fusion, so prepare for magnificent pasta mash-ups like linguine in scallop cream sauce, spaghetti miso carbonara and the decadent, sublime uni tomato cream — dishes that earned it Desert Companion’s 2012 Ethnic Restaurant of the Year. The high-energy Yu Yu (4115 Spring Mountain Road #101, 220-4223) is Las Vegas’ first and only — so far — kushi-age house, all deep-fried, all the time. Actually, there’s lots of tasty variety at Yu Yu, but there are few places where you can indulge in crispy-fried pumpkin, wild yam, bacon-wrapped mozzarella cheese, curry flavored lotus root, octopus tentacles and smelt.
The westside’s serene I-Naba (3210 S. Decatur Blvd., 220-6060) specializes in simple soba noodles and approaches all of its dishes with a Raku-like reverence. Along with the blissful noodles — served hot or cold, alone with dipping sauce or shotgunned by tasty toppings like eggplant and daikon — I-Naba offers tempura, irresistible wedges of lightly cured mackerel on sushi rice called battera, and soba crepes with ice cream and sweet azuki beans for dessert. Nearby, the versatile and recently renovated Shobu (3650 S. Decatur Blvd. #31, 453-3377) calls itself a sake house and houses several karaoke rooms in case you want to imbibe and perform. But this kitchen pulls off everything well, from the textural pleasures of salmon skin salad to stellar house-made oshinko (pickles).
Creativity with Japanese food can be found in our massive casinos, too. The new Nobu restaurant at Caesars Palace is a notable addition as it serves as a reminder of how Americans learned to eat and love Japanese cuisine, but if you’re looking for the next level, head over to Wynn’s brilliant Mizumi (Wynn Las Vegas, 248-3463). Chef Devin Hashimoto really hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for his inventive menu here, which magnificently includes smoky robotayaki skewers, teppan grill items and Korean-style bibimbap. Equally overlooked is the pitch-perfect menu at Hachi (Red Rock Resort, 797-7576), which now includes true Japanese wagyu beef cooked at your table on a hot rock and a killer scallop tiradito. Perhaps because this neighborhood casino is always so accommodating, people have forgotten how fun it is to eat at Hachi. Or maybe they’re still working their way through all the fantastic new Japanese restaurants spread around the valley.